460 plan advances

Published 9:43 am Friday, February 20, 2015

By Matthew A. Ward
Special to The Tidewater News

Suffolk’s Tommy Rountree was among several area farmers and other concerned citizens who traveled to Richmond on Wednesday for what they considered a critical vote for Western Tidewater by the Commonwealth Transportation Board.

With two abstentions and one vote against, the board approved the new plan that state and federal officials announced last month to improve Route 460.

A new four-lane road would be constructed between Suffolk and just west of Windsor, about 12 miles. A further five miles of the existing 460 would be improved to just west of Zuni, including a new bridge across the flood-prone Blackwater River.

“It comes right through the middle of everything,” Rountree said of the alignment in relation to his Old Myrtle Road farm. “It just obliterates us — cuts the farm in half. I just can’t think of anything good to say about it.”

Together with the Federal Highway Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Virginia Department of Transportation announced the new plan after the McAuliffe administration froze spending on a very different earlier iteration, due to environmental concerns.

Championed relentlessly by former Gov. Bob McDonnell and advanced to the tune of $300 million without federal environmental approval or any actual construction, that earlier plan involved a new, 55-mile-long interstate-standard toll road between Suffolk and Petersburg.

According to John Malbon, Hampton Roads’ representative, the vote by the CTB clears the way for State Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne to talk to U.S. Mobility Partners, the private partnership that contracted with the state at the end of 2012, about remaining on the project, to “see what we can extract out of what’s already been paid to them and see if we can apply it.”

There are no guarantees. The partnership of Ferrovial Agroman, an infrastructure operator and municipal services company boasting 65,000 employees in more than 25 countries, and American Infrastructure, a Mid-Atlantic-based heavy civil construction company and material supplier, will need to weigh an estimated new cost of $375 to $425 million against $1.4 billion when they inked the contract.

Rountree also traveled to Richmond last Friday with a delegation of concerned citizens, meeting with Layne, VDOT Commissioner Charlie Fitzpatrick and a selection of their staff. Fellow Suffolk farmers Jesse Williams and David Bosselman also attended those talks, which Suffolk’s Delegate Chris Jones (R-76) and the Virginia Farm Bureau set up, Rountree said.

“No trip is ever worthless, but we really didn’t accomplish what we wanted to accomplish,” he said.

Instead of building a new road of any length, Rountree believes upgrading the existing highway would better achieve the state’s objectives of enhancing evacuation capabilities, safety and economic development while minimizing environmental impact.

“The McDonnell administration really messed us up financially on this road,” he said.

“Some of them are trying to make the best they can out of a pretty big mess. Unfortunately, for a lot of people, it’s going to be an even bigger mess. If they considered farmland equal with wetlands, we would not be in this predicament.”

The Southern Environmental Law Center’s Trip Pollard said little to no evidence has been presented that the project’s original purpose and need would still be achieved under the new plan.

The new plan’s 52 acres of wetlands impact, Pollard said, is “clearly preferable” to the previous plan, which would have impacted some 474 acres, but “it still destroys three acres of wetlands per mile, and it’s pretty costly.”

“I’m disappointed they have moved as quickly as they have, because I think it needs additional vetting,” he said, acknowledging the plan also still requires a permit from the Corps — though that federal environmental regulator appears supportive.

VDOT spokeswoman Tamara Rollison said it’s too early to estimate how much of the $300 million already spent could be applied to the new plan if Mobility Partners sticks, or how much extra would otherwise have to be paid in penalties to end the contract.

With CTB approval in hand, state transportation officials will now conduct public outreach this spring, updating the latest information, answering questions and soliciting feedback, ahead of the release of a final environmental study on the new plan, she added.